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Wellstone finds improvements, lingering poverty in Delta

May 30, 1997

TUNICA, Miss. (AP) _ In 1967, Robert Kennedy’s shock at living conditions in the Mississippi Delta forced the Democratic administration to do something about hunger and squalor then rampant in the South.

Much has changed since then, with the arrival of casinos and catfish farms, food stamps and and school nutrition programs. But Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, visiting shacks and broken-down schools three decades after Kennedy, said the country shouldn’t tolerate the poverty that still exists.

``I would not come here to say there has been no progress. I also come here to say we can do much better,″ Wellstone said Thursday, standing in a muddy, garbage-strewn yard. ``This doesn’t represent the fulfillment of the American dream or what our country is about.″

The Democrat took a bus full of reporters and network television crews around Tunica County to kick off a tour he’s making of poverty-stricken areas around the country this summer.

Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice suggested Wellstone go home and deal with his own state’s problems. ``He’s using Mississippi as a whipping boy,″ Fordice said. ``I’m sick of it.″

Wellstone saw improvements: a school being renovated with the county’s gambling revenue windfall and new three-bedroom homes being built for low-income families. But he also saw scenes akin to those Kennedy saw when he visited the region south of Tunica in 1967: hovels that house up to three families at once, for example.

``It’s still hard to believe that people in the country live in these conditions,″ Wellstone said after looking over a group of shacks on the edge of town.

Brenda McLemore, her disabled husband and five children, ages 14 to 22, lived in a one-bedroom, tar paper-covered shanty. Old shoes, a broken stroller and bottles were scattered in the mud around the house. A faucet under the porch was the only source of water.

No one in the family works _ the only income is her husband’s government disability check _ and only the youngest child goes to school.

The rent is $75 a month. ``I don’t have the money to pay for a larger place,″ she told reporters.

Kennedy’s trip helped lead to an outpouring of food assistance to the South from Congress and the Johnson administration. Wellstone says he’s following in the New York Senator’s footsteps to focus national attention on the plight of the poor.

Since Kennedy’s visit, though, conditions in the Delta have improved ``1,000 percent,″ said Charles Evers, a black Republican leader who led Kennedy on his Delta tour.

Sugar Ditch, a drainage ditch in the middle of Tunica, no longer has sewage flowing through it. The 100 shacks that once stood around it have been torn down and replaced by brick apartments for poor elderly people.

Outside town, 21 three-bedroom homes are nearly finished for low-income families and 10 more are planned.

Since 1992, money has been pouring into Tunica and surrounding counties from the eight casinos operating along the Mississippi River north of town. The number of people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children has dropped 55 percent. Food stamp distribution is only a fifth of what it was in 1992. Area wages are up 25 percent, according to the convention and visitors bureau.

Though unemployment in Tunica County still exceeds 9 percent, the gambling industry employs 12,000 people, more than the population of the county.

``People are looking to own homes,″ said James Dunn, a black county commissioner. ``Before they were just looking to put a roof over their heads.″

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